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It's All in the i-Details - Swans

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

In preparation for the Christmas Bird Count, here is another installment in "It's All in the i-Details" series. Honing Your skills for the upcoming Christmas Bird Count.

Last week, I took a trip up to Strathroy Lagoons to see what waterfowl may have flown in and was delighted to see a tableau of large, white birds that had been reported. It’s easy to label these majestic creatures as swan species but requires closer observation to decide which of the three types of swan found in our local area. Mute Swans (introduced species) are seen all year at Komoka Ponds and nest there, but the other two species, Tundra and Trumpeter are usually migratory. If you see a pinkish orange bill, with a knob on top, you are likely looking at a Mute. Juvenile Tundra Swans can have a dull pinkish bill, however, so check the markings on any adults that may be nearby.

On to the finer details of the other species... Trumpeters can equal Mute Swan in size, but Tundras are a bit smaller‒always tricky if both aren’t present for comparison. The head is the key to identification. The easiest field mark to focus on is the presence of a yellow spot or patch on the black skin in front of the eye. If it’s there, you can tick your bird(s) as Tundra Swan. But the absence of yellow doesn’t necessarily mean an obvious Trumpeter, since it may be missing on about 10% of Tundras. It helps to add up several field marks to get a conclusive ID.

Next, look at the forehead, or where the white feathers meet the black skin that continues above the top of the bill. Is the shape a pointed “V” or straight across, with a slight rounding? The “V” indicates a Trumpeter. The shape of the bill in side profile is important too. Tundras have a more rounded head with a gentle indent to the slope of the bill, but Trumpeter shows a straight slope from the crown of the head out to the tip of the bill. Finally, look closely at the eye. Does it seem to be continuous with the black skin around the bill, which meets at a point including the eye, or does the eye appear more distinct and separate from the black skin area in front of it. Trumpeter vs Tundra. The recovery of Trumpeter populations continues to be a success story, and as anyone who has witnessed the swans gathering en masse at Aylmer, they are thrilling to see and hear.

** photos from top: Trumpeter, Trumpeter, Tundra, Mute Swan

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